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What are the best academic blogs you've never heard of? Scott McLemee beats the bushes for leads

December 5, 2007

A few months ago, I started using Bloglines, a service for keeping track of new posts on the blogs one looks at regularly. Other such aggregators are available elsewhere -- from Google, for one. But my decision to go with this one was not a matter of carefully evaluating the available options. A librarian who found Bloglines useful in her own work offered to set it up for me and provide a quick tutorial on how to use it. We "late adopters" are prone to using whatever tools someone is kind enough to explain to us.

To express appreciation, I gave her a copy of the recent essay collection She's Such a Geek: Women Write About Science, Technology, and Other Nerdy Stuff, reviewed here. The skills of tech-savvy women may be underestimated by society at large, but not by me. This gesture was well received (the librarian in question flies her geek flag proudly) and I would recommend the book as a gift suggestion for anyone owing a debt of gratitude to the female digerati.

Having been thus initiated into the mysteries of the RSS feed, I plugged the two or three dozen URLs from my regular rounds into Bloglines and started keeping up. Most were academic blogs. And when they linked to another blog that looked interesting enough to bear monitoring, I would enter it into Bloglines, too. A group blog run by social scientists interested in the dynamics of various kinds of organizations? Sure thing! One where a graduate student in philosophy thinks out loud about philosophy, and about being a graduate student? Why not?

You can probably see where this is headed. As of this morning, there are 372 feeds in my Bloglines account. Occasionally it proves necessary to purge a few. (From time to time, my aspiration to be under-informed on a really encyclopedic scale is undercut by the sheer eyestrain involved.) But there's too much benefit to being able to eavesdrop on smart conversations not to keep adding new ones; and ephemerality has its pleasures, too.

Curious what worthwhile feeds might be missing from my aggregator, I contacted a number of academic bloggers to ask if they followed any academic blogs that deserved more attention. (I defined "academic blogging" here pretty loosely, since this seems like a category that can involve a wide range of interests, approaches, and personnel.) Nearly everyone responded. So here follows a roundup of their suggested readings -- points on a map that nobody has gotten around to drawing yet.

Matthew Battles, a senior editor at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the author of Library: An Unquiet History (Norton 2003), responded that he's not actually doing any blogging himself now -- what with "nonvirtual life, alas, being all too nonvirtual." But he did name a couple of favorites.

"Whatever definition of academic blog you adopt," he said, "The Proceedings of the Athanasius Kircher Society likely stretches it to breaking. But I appreciate the Kircher Society' Panglossian perspective and its commitment to what I can only call esoteric universalism -- the world's a tissue of secrets and wonders."

He also cited Ethan Zuckerman's My Heart's in Accra: "With great activity and intelligence, Ethan's blog ties together the seemingly disparate strands of human rights, development, and Internet culture (and it doesn't take long reading his blog to realize that they're not disparate at all)."

Cathy Davidson, a professor of English and interdisciplinary studies at Duke University who blogs at Cat in the Stack, recommends a number of blogs including "danah boyd's Apophrenia column, Howard Reingolds' Smart Mobs, and Henry Jenkins' Acafan."

All three have a strong emphasis on digital culture. She also points out Savage Minds, a group blog on anthropology, and Jonathan Sterne's Super Bon!

Barbara Fister, an academic librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College, in St. Peter, Minn., contributes to the Association of College and Research Libraries' ACRLog. She singles out if:book, the blog of the Institute for the Future of the Book, as a source of "thought-provoking discussions of how we may be reimagining the book in a digital world."

Less analytic, but a reliable source of "intriguing stuff, hot off the press," is Sabrina I. Pacifici's blog, BeSpacific. "Its tagline, 'accurate, focused law and technology news' is on target," Fister says.

Phil Ford is an assistant professor of music at Indiana University and a member of the almost excessively enjoyable group blog Dial "M" for Musicology. Some of you may recall his notorious (and widely read) piece here at IHE applying the wisdom of gangsta rap to the academic workplace. I don't mean to play favorites here, but what the hell: Of any blog that I read regularly, Dial "M" is the one that seems most like a really good magazine.

Ford recommends a new effort called People Listen To It that was, he says, "started by a University of Illinois ethnomusicology professor named Gabriel Solis and is a group blog that includes a number of his seminar students. They're still kind of catching their stride (it takes a while to work out a bloggy voice), but it's an interesting idea, doing a group blog grounded in a single institution, and having students blogging alongside their professor. Has anyone else done this? It wouldn't have occurred to me even to try, and I wouldn't think it would work, but this one does."

Scott Eric Kaufman, now finishing his dissertation in English at the University of California at Irvine, is probably better known as "that guy who walked in on two students having sex in his office," thanks to a widely circulated post at his blog Acephalous. That was two years ago. The story will never die. Someday it will be adapted for film and shown at Sundance.

Kaufman cites Chuck Tryon's The Chutry Experiment and Liz Losh's Virtual Politik as blogs that probably have larger audiences than their comments sections might suggest. He says that Sisyphus' Academic Cog is"the best barometer of job-market induced hysteria" he knows.

And Kaufman singles out Jonathan Mayhew's Bemsha Swing as a source of "the best writing about writing out there, a consistently sound motivator for me to stop reading blogs and start writing my dissertation. (Odd praise, that is: it's the blog that makes you want to stop reading it.)"

Adam Kotsko is a doctoral student at the Chicago Theological Seminary and author of Zizek and Theology, to be published next year by Continuum Books. He contributes to An und fur sich, a group blog on theology and Continental philosophy.

"I would recommend Voyou Desoeuvre," he says; "the writing and political analysis are great, and I love that he doesn't have a 'publish or perish' mentality."

Tedra Osell was an assistant professor of English at the University of Guelph (now on the job market) and has written an interesting paper on gender and anonymity in 18th century magazines and 21st century blogging. She is also the channel for Bitch Ph.D.

Osell calls herself "a huge fan" of Outside the (Toy)Box, the work of a blogger who identifies herself as "a professor in an unnamed social science field as well as media studies."

"Her writing shows the ways that being a mom and an academic are not only compatible," says Osell, "but that doing both together makes her better at each of her jobs."

Eric Rauchway, a professor of history at the University of California at Davis, was interviewed in this column previously. He has contributed to The New Republic's effort to create the academic supergroup blog Open University, which I think is technically still alive. (If you hold a mirror under its nose, there is fog, sometimes.) With his colleague Ari Kelman, he has more recently been blogging at Edge of the West.

Rauchway is a fan of Ben Wolfson's blog waste: "If you had been living on a blogless planet, and then had blogs described to you, and then were asked to hypothesize what a scholar's blog might look like, this would be it: rich in dry wit, obscure wordplay, and shaggy dog stories."

Chris Matthew Sciabarra is a visiting scholar in the department of politics at New York University and the author, most recently, of Total Freedom: Toward a Dialectical Libertarianism (Penn State University Press, 2000). He is part of the group blog Liberty and Power

He calls Lester Hunt's E pur si muove! "just a lot of fun, and all over the map, from popular culture to philosophy." And while Once Upon a Time is not written by an academic, Sciabarra calls it "among the most passionate blogs I've ever read on the crossroads of culture, social psychology, and politics." And he cites Roderick Long's blog Austro-Athenian Empire for "pure libertarian radicalism that I find very appealing."

Aaron Swartz is a programmer whose work on Open Library was covered in Intellectual Affairs this summer. He blogs at Raw Thought.

Swartz referred me to Robert Viennau's Thoughts on Economics, calling it the work of "a scrupulous, independent scholar with an interest bordering on obsession with heterodox economics. His blog is filled with interesting quotes from his voluminous reading, arguments against the economics mainstream, and occasionally proofs of various interesting things."

He also points out The Monkey Cage: ""Although this blog started only days ago, it's quickly become one of my favorites. Three political scientists from [George Washington University] describe recent research results in an clear and engaging style. I wish every field had a blog like this -- come on, sociologists!"

Siva Vaidhyanathan, an associate professor of media studies and law at the University of Virginia, has published widely on questions involving new media and intellectual property, and not long ago started a blog in conjunction with his book in progress, The Googlization of Everything.

Like Scott Eric Kaufman (above), he points to Liz Losh's VirtualPolitik: "Liz teaches rhetoric at UC-Irvine. She is one of the smartest people writing about information technology uses among educators and young people. The way she combines rhetorical criticism with technological sophistication is inspiring. I also dig It's a group blog by a bunch of my favorite law professors. It's sharp and well written, concerned with a broad array of legal issues but centers on intellectual property, mostly."

Vaidhyanathan also says he is "a big fan" of Feminist Law Professors: "This blog keeps the good ol' boys in the legal academy honest. Ann Bartow at the University of South Carolina is the editor and leader of the blog. Its contributions are wide ranging. And the writing is first-rate."

Jeremy Young is a graduate student in history at Indiana University, with a special interest in the Progressive era. And when he blogs, it's at Progressive Historians.

"I'm a liberal," Young says. "ZenPundit (Mark Safranski) is a conservative. So what? His history blog is one of the most best reads on the 'Net. Whether he's discussing small wars theory, political history, or Jack Kerouac, he's unfailingly thorough and offers a unique, insightful perspective on every issue he covers."

He also follows A Historian's Craft, the blog of Rachel Leow, "an obscenely smart Malaysian-British grad student at Cambridge." Young describes it as "a delightful, thought-provoking, and often moving journey through intellectual history. Don't miss Rachel's collection of what she playfully terms 'bookporn' -- salivatingly-gorgeous photographs of library stacks taken by the author herself."


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